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MAY 11, 2016 AT 9:53 AM
Tommy John Surgeries Are Down, And Nobody Quite Knows Why
Last week, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that Angels ace Garrett Richards would miss the rest of this season — and at least part of next year — after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The loss of a talented pitcher who was off to a promising start provided the usual alarming reminder that any arm could be days away from a season-ending diagnosis. But we can serve some chicken soup for the baseball fan’s soul:1 Compared with totals through the same date in recent seasons, 2016’s Tommy John toll has been mercifully light. (Knock on the nearest ulnar collateral ligament.)
Historically, March and April have been the peak periods for Tommy John-inducing injuries. Not only does ramping up from a winter’s inactivity put pitchers at increased risk, but spring is also when pitchers who felt a twinge at the end of the previous season can no longer pretend rest will restore them. From 2005-14, 44 percent of injuries that led to elbow ligament replacements occurred in March or April. The last two springs were particularly costly, yielding record Tommy John totals and depriving fans of full seasons from such prominent pitchers as Yu Darvish, Zack Wheeler and Brandon McCarthy in 2015, and Matt Moore, Patrick Corbin and Jarrod Parker in 2014.
In 2016, however, the parade of early-season elbow injuries has slowed, as evidenced by Hardball Times analyst Jon Roegele’s list of Tommy John patients.
This year’s tally of 22 Tommy John surgeries through May 10 — across all professional levels — is the lowest since 2002.2 And that count includes very few prominent pitchers: Aside from Richards, the highest-profile big leaguer lost to the procedure in 2016 thus far3 is Carter Capps, the Miami Marlins reliever whose borderline-illegal deliverymade him an attraction mostly in a circus-freak sense. This year’s big-league Tommy John casualties were projected by Dan Szymborski’s preseason ZiPS algorithm to produce only 7.0 wins above replacement in 2016,4 compared with the 13.3 and 23.8 WAR projected for Tommy John victims by May 10 of the 2015 and 2014 seasons, respectively.
It would be pretty to think this means that teams have solved the UCL scourge. Unfortunately, though, there’s no real reason to believe they’ve addressed all of the underlying problems that contribute to ligament tears. Pitchers continue to throw harder than they have in the past, and higher pitch speeds are associated with higher risks of injury. And as Passan reported in his recent elbow-injury opus, “The Arm,” the odometers on amateur arms are still creeping up quickly, thanks to year-round competition and the pressure to appear — and throw as hard as possible — in scout-packed showcase events.
In other words, this year’s reduced injury toll may come down to timing and plain old good fortune. As Kyle Boddy, founder of the pitching performance and research facility Driveline Baseball, told us: “The easiest and most likely explanation is that Tommy John surgeries were abnormally high last year and are somewhat low this year.”
Not that MLB clubs aren’t altering pitcher usage in an attempt to preserve arms. Between 2008 and 2015, the average number of pitches per major league start fell from about 97 to 93. Some of this decrease owes to swelling bullpens and an increased recognition that putting in fresh pitchers is oftento teams’ benefit, but it also stems in part from an impulse Passan described to us in an email: “If throwing hurts pitchers, throwing less will hurt pitchers less.”
Passan dismissed that thought process as “reductive.” As he pointed out, “no studies have proven decreased usage in major league pitchers does anything to stem blown-out elbows.” But he granted that there might be better health-related reasons to shorten the leash for minor leaguers. “There is a profound difference between an 18-year-old’s elbow and that of a 25-year-old,” Passan said.
Teams seem to be taking that mindset seriously. At a seasonal level, per-player pitch counts have declined by about 10 percent across the board in Double A and Triple A from 2013 to present (after increasing in 2011 and 2012). And prospects who’ve appeared in Baseball America’s top 100 rankings have seen their counts sink even more, by about 15 percent. According to Boddy, “the reduction in workloads is definitely a concentrated effort by teams to impact injury rates.”
One team in particular has treated its minor league starters like delicate flowers: the Los Angeles Dodgers under the Andrew Friedman regime. Although player development director Gabe Kapler (who was hired in November 2014) didn’t divulge any details about the team’s plan for young pitchers when we asked him for comment, Dodger starters in Double and Triple A last season threw about five fewer pitches per outing than the league average, and their staffs’ ratio of relief appearances to starts was 20 percent higher than that of the typical team — indicating that the Dodgers’ upper-level affiliates are signaling for new arms early and often.
The poster boy for pitch-count control is 19-year-old Dodgers starter Julio Urias, the minor leagues’ top left-handed pitching prospect and the youngest pitcher in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League by almost three years. Urias, who’s made 60 minor league starts, has never thrown more than six innings in any single outing as a pro; earlier this month, he no-hit the New Orleans Zephyrs for six innings and was still pulled after 77 pitches. According to game-by-game minor league data from Baseball Prospectus,5only one pitcher who made the majors in that span — Rafael Dolis, who pitched primarily out of the bullpen and never started a big-league game — made more than 60 minor league starts before his MLB debut without ever recording more than 18 outs in any of them. If Urias makes six more starts without seeing the seventh inning before his Dodgers debut, he’ll pass Dolis on the light-workload leaderboard. If he doesn’t do it, it will probably be because the Dodgers decided to promote him to the big-league bullpen, a move they’re currently contemplating.
“Most doctors believe limiting usage the way the Dodgers have with Julio Urias gives his UCL the best chance to survive the stress and strain that comes with his sort of velocity,” Passan said. The catch, of course, is that Urias will eventually have to go deeper in games—unless Los Angeles implements an even more innovative approach to limiting workloads at the major league level, perhaps building on the tandem-starter schemes other teams have tried. If the Dodgers don’t handle Urias’s transition to the majors with care, they could inadvertently expose him to even greater risk. “Pitchers are most at risk later in the games when they are fatigued, so limiting workloads in the minors only to expose them to the traditional 180-220 IP and 100+ pitch count metrics in the big leagues doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Boddy says.
With all the brainpower in LA’s rapidly inflating R&D department devoted to injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them ahead of the arm-injury curve. But in the bigger picture, this year’s Tommy John reversal might prove as illusory as the global warming “pause.” Pitch-count protocols in pro ball probably won’t undo the damage done at earlier ages, and a lasting solution would require more sweeping changes than teams have had time to institute.
But even if what we’ve witnessed this spring is just a trough between Tommy John waves, we should still savor the lack of ugly MRI results as long as it lasts. The fewer pitchers paying visits to the dreaded Dr. James Andrews, the better off baseball will be.
Ken Giles has had to move on from multiple bad outings this year. The hard-throwing reliever has allowed two runs on five different occasions, and a dozen runs in 15 innings overall. That’s not what was expected when the Astros acquired him in a trade over the winter. In two seasons with Philadelphia, Giles had a 1.56 ERA and a 1.82 FIP.
On Thursday, I brought up my conversation with Manaea when I spoke to the former Phillie. When I told him what I’d asked the rookie — using blunter language than necessary — his response was part admonishment and part words of wisdom.
“You can’t tell someone he got his ass kicked,” Giles told me. “It’s the worst thing you can possibly say to somebody, especially a young guy. There’s no way he should feel he got demolished because he’s not good enough. You should never, ever think that way.
“Bumps in the road are something that happen to everybody. I’m back on track now, but I went through my own hiccup in April. The best pitchers in the game go through it when they’re young. They still go through it now.”
Giles struggled at time in the minors — “I definitely wasn’t lights out” — but any self doubt he encountered was quickly dispelled.
“For me, that would last one night,” said Giles. “I’d think to myself, ‘Maybe I’m not really cut out for this,’ but few hours later, I’d be back to ‘I can do this.’ Motivating yourself can be hard when you’re not having success, but you have to find a way.”
The 25-year-old righty offered a flat “No” when I asked if it’s possible to explain what it feels like to stand on the mound amid a barrage of hits. He did allow that it’s frustrating, adding that things will go south if you let the frustration get to you.
Giles told me he’s “a big adrenaline guy” and that he “feeds off the tension of close situations.” My response to hearing that was to ask if adrenaline can be detrimental when things aren’t going well.
“Not as long as you keep your mind straight,” opined Giles. “If you don’t have a clear mind, you can get eaten up. If you’re getting mad, the clouds can blind you and it will only get worse. But adrenaline is more of an energy-excitement thing than an anger thing. When you’re angry, you tense up. When you have an adrenaline rush going, you’re loose.”
Being a pitcher who feeds off adrenaline does have its challenges. When he’s pitching in a low-leverage situation, he has to “try to find that motivation, even though my adrenaline isn’t kicking in; I have to figure out how to pitch and not just throw the ball.”
Bringing along a top prospect
May 16, 2016 by Peter Gammons
Prospects are like sophomore college quarterbacks. Play them. Now. It was that way in 2013 when Jackie Bradley Jr. tore up spring training, the Red Sox were coming off a meltdown season and talk shows howled for him to go North for Opening Day. An injury opened the door, and when he put up a .189 average and the door hit him on the way out and back down to the minors, it wasn’t until two years later that he regained his approach and became the player Chad Holbrook and everyone at South Carolina thought he’d be when he was a Sophomore in Columbia.
It was that way with Francisco Lindor last spring, and even after he struggled in Cleveland for a month after his June recall (which was to stabilize the defense) and finished the season strong, the Indians were asked why he wasn’t up sooner. We see it in Luis Severino, who this spring was being touted as a Cy Young sleeper “when,” as one Yankee coach says, “he hadn’t fully developed his other pitches.”
And, in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are the rage of talk radio because they haven’t brought upTyler Glasnow. Never mind that in his last start Thursday in Syracuse, when the Chiefs didn’t chase his fastballs and breaking balls out of the zone, he had a five walk, one strikeout start. Never mind that he and his agent understand, because the Pirates organization has been up front with him from spring training. Never mind that Jameson Taillon (7 GS, 2.08 ERA, 34.1 IP, 5 BB, 43 K) will be the next in line, or that Pittsburgh’s success developing and recreating pitchers is an industry model, or that in that market the Pirates have had Super Twos like Gerrit Cole and Walker, but in many cases Neal Huntington does not want them confronting the setback of going back down, like Bradley.
Is Neal Huntington cautious? A better word would be careful. When you’re a small market, small revenue team like the Pirates and the Indians—with whom Huntington has spent most of his executive career—service time is important. Of course they want to have an extraordinary player under control for seven, not six years, as the Cubs did with Kris Bryant. In most cases, they want to set the arbitration clock, but, as with Cole and Walker, not all young players.
But when you’re the Pirates or the Indians and you are trying to make a run in the National League and/or American League Central Division, you can’t afford the three-year prep learning curve that the Padres, Braves, Phillies and Reds are currently dedicated to, and that the Cubs and Astros did well in years past. “We want to avoid having to send a young player back as much as possible,” says Huntington. The same goes for Mike Chernoff and Chris Antonetti with the Indians, who with the Michael Brantley setback might be tempted to throw Bradley Zimmer into center field for a couple of weeks. As the Blue Jays begin their reconstruction after this season, so it will be for GM Ross Atkins, who learned in the baseball world with Huntington, John Farrell, Chernoff and Antonetti, and learned growing up from his uncle Dave Odom, who was such an outstanding basketball coach at Wake Forest and South Carolina.
“He is an amazingly consistent man,” says Atkins. “I’d talk to him about developing players like Tim Duncan (a major factor in the Spurs franchise team building video) or Rodney Rogers or Randolph Childress. I learned a lot about consistency, about having no distractions to a process.” As Huntington is not allowing the voices that carry to distract from Glasnow’s finishing development.
Taillon likely will be in Pittsburgh before the All Star break. Glasnow will likely be there by the trading deadline. And there clearly is a culture built within the Pirates because of stars like Andrew McCutchen and Cole, developed because of the integration of a consistent philosophy that runs from the roots of the organization on up to Clint Hurdle and his extraordinary coaching staff.
There is no question that the Pirates, Indians and, in time, the Blue Jays want to emulate the Cardinals and, in short time because of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Joe Maddon and their integral operation, the Cubs. In many ways, the Cardinals trace back to Branch Rickey. For years their system of teaching, development and evaluation was run by the late, great George Kissell, and now is run by one of the most unappreciated figures in the game in Gary LaRocque, empowered by John Mozeliak. Every spring, it’s “next?”
Read Derrick Goold’s Monday piece in the St. Louis Dispatch on the learning and development process of pitcher Alex Reyes, who may be their new new thing come August.
The Cardinal culture has been in place for years, so when a Reyes does make it to St. Louis, there is Adam Wainwright in the room, as Chris Carpenter was in the room when Wainwright arrived. And there is Yadier Molina everywhere when Aledmys Diaz had to be brought up.
In the world of top 100 prospects and showcase development, every prospect is a potential franchise-changer. Hey, ten year ago Delmon Young was the no. 1 prospect in the game,Blake Wood no. 3, Jeremy Hermida no. 4, Lastings Milledge and Andy LaRoche from 9 to 20. In 2009, Giancarlo Stanton was 16th, one spot ahead of Lars Anderson. Dylan understood it: “backseat drivers don’t know the feel of the wheel but they sure know how to make a fuss.” Which, essentially, reminds us that rather than run a small market team that from 2013-15 had the second most wins in baseball, lost two play-in games to Madison Bumgarner andJake Arrietta and after winning the other lost to the Cardinals in the NLDS, Huntington will not get the credit he deserves until he retires and becomes a media voice.
The work that goes into the Baseball America, MLB.com and ESPN.com lists is astoundingly diligent. But there are some distractions, as Dave Odom would note, that complicate putting tools to wins. The showcase development culture is Look at ME, and that impedes the major league assimilation and maturity for some young high school kids. Chernoff suggests that it is an easier development progression for the college player, who has gone through what college freshmen have to go through—carrying the bags and hazing and all that happens when one is a freshman.
Which may explain why it was so much easier for Kyle Schwarber and Michael Conforto to perform on playoff teams in their first full professional seasons. And why we could seeDansby Swanson in Atlanta, Alex Bregman in Houston, Andrew Benintendi in Boston and Carson Fulmer with the White Sox come September.
J.P. Ricciardi has long said, “remember, prospects are only prospects until they prove it in the big leagues,” and it could be that come September, Taillon, Glasnow, Swanson, Bregman, Benintendi and Fullmer remain prospects, not major league staples.
But determining when a young player is ready to perform on the major league level and not have to back out the door for another chapter in his development process is an important part of every general manager’s job. It was that way in the early seventies when the Dodgers and Phillies had players backed up to the A level, it was that way when Bill Lajoie coordinated that run of young Tigers in the late seventies and early eighties, and right now it is that way for the Pirates, Indians, Red Sox, Cubs, Cardinals…
When Atkins was the farm director of the Indians and he was having trouble connecting with a young player, Odom would tell him, “fly to his house and talk to him.” The message was clear: Tim Duncan was a kid once, very human, and so is Tyler Glasnow and Fransisco Lindor and Jackie Bradley, Jr.
And human beings come with the warning tag that reads “Caution:Complicated.”
May 17, 2016 Kevin Trahan
COLLEGE COACHES AND ADMINISTRATORS ARE TOO BUSY PAYING THEMSELVES TO PAY ATHLETES
University athletic departments love to claim that they can't pay revenue sport college athletes because they don't make a "profit." But look deeper into their spending habits, and this claim quickly appears ridiculous. As non-profits, they engage in the process of gold-plating—that is, spending more money than is necessary on pricey things they don't need,like camps in Australia, simply because there's more cash on hand when television and marketing deals keep going up while the price of their on-field labor force remains fixed and minimal.
One of the biggest wastes of spending is coaches' salaries and bonuses. Just two decades ago, college football coaches didn't even make $1 million dollars per year. Now, 55 make at least $2 million per year; 16 coaches make at least $4 million per year. Then there are the booming salaries for support staff, but even more risible are the inexplicable bonuses.
Since schools aren't allowed to pay the athletes, they pay the coaches bonuses for things the athletes do, like meeting on-field objectives, and even more hilariously, meeting academic objectives.
Iowa State has taken this bonus structure to a whole new level. The Des Moines Registerfound that the Cyclones will pay new coach Matt Campbell $500,000 for winning six games in a season. Half a million dollars for winning six games!
It is incredibly easy to win six games in college football. Last year, 77 of 128 teams did it. ISU schedules (what should be) two automatic wins each season—one against a Football Championship Subdivision team, and one against a small-conference team—and so it needs to win just four of its remaining 10 games to line Campbell's checking account. That's eminently doable. The Cyclones have a putrid football history, with zero January bowl game appearances, but even then, they've won at least six games in five of the past 12 seasons.
Campbell's bonus is an awful lot of money to pay for mediocrity. If Iowa State put that same cash toward its players, each of the 85 scholarship players on the team could get $5,882 for winning six games.
However, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard, who makes $900,000 per year, can't think of a realistic way to pay athletes, among other things:
Yet to hear one realistic plan how to pay players without eliminating all other sports. Value of Education versus Arena FB or D League.
We have an idea, Jamie!
What's worse is that Pollard couldn't come up with a way to pay for cost of attendance stipends without big changes elsewhere.
"We'll have to pass those costs on to our fans," he said. "There's just no other way about it."
That must feel good for fans, knowing how Iowa State spends its money elsewhere.
Pollard isn't alone in this opinion. Many people in college sports making huge salaries, and paying out huge bonuses, can't figure out how to rejigger their budgets. So let's help them out.
The Academic Bonus
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino might have one of the most ridiculous bonuses in college football: he gets $500,000 every time Louisville's football team meets its Academic Progress Rate objective.
This bonus is essentially paid every year, because Louisville's APR bar (935) is ridiculously low, and barely above the NCAA minimum (930). (Not to mention that all the APR measures is whether Louisville's athletes are eligible to stay in school—not how well they are doing in their classes.)
So Petrino makes half a million dollars if his players do the bare minimum in the classroom. You might ask, "How on earth does that money not go to the players?" Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is not so sure about that.
While Jurich would be OK with "some kind of stipend," he thinks all this spending could just get out of control, and that those upset about the payment structure right now will never be satisfied.
"If you pay somebody $100, somebody is going to want $200," he said. "Pay somebody $200, somebody (else) will offer $300. Agree that everyone gets $300, somebody will want $400. It's human nature. That won't change."
Jurich reportedly makes a little over $1.4 million a year. Phew, thank God we're not offering people ridiculous incentives already.
Winning More Than One SEC Game
It's tough to win games in the SEC, but Kentucky is so desperate for SEC relevance that it is willing to pay $100,000 per SEC win (after the first win). So despite going 5-7 overall in 2014 and 2-6 in the SEC, coach Mark Stoops made $100,000.
Stoops would like to give the athletes some of that money, he says, but it sounds hard.
"I realize it's very complicated. It's not as easy as just to say, 'Yeah, I'd like to pay the players,'" he said. "I mean, of course I'd like to give the players more, but I also realize that's a very complicated issue. You're getting into a lot of things that I don't have the answers for.
"So would I be in favor of giving the players a little bit more money? Sure. But I would have no idea about how to go about doing that, and I don't think a lot of people do."
You know why I love Clemson coach Dabo Swinney? He only coaches for the love of the game. Obviously he has to make a salary, but there's nothing about winning that drives him besides what happens on the scoreboard.
At least, that's what Swinney wants you to believe. However, he made over $1 million in bonuses last season. Somehow, Swinney—or his agent, one of those exploitative "pimps" college athletes must be protected from—got that written into his contract while also going on a diatribe against "entitlement."
"We've got enough entitlement in this country as it is," Swinney said. "To say these guys get nothing totally devalues an education. It just blows my mind people don't even want to quantify an education.
"I didn't get into coaching to make money—coaches weren't making any money when I got into coaching. It's what I wanted to do with my life, and I was able to do it because of my education. That's what changed my life. That's what changes everybody's life."
The good news is that if athletes are ever allowed to be paid, Clemson can take the money out of Swinney's pocket. In fact, why don't they save some money and do that now? It's not like Swinney wants that money or anything, and besides, it's probably just making him entitled, which is the last thing America needs.
People Watched Maryland Football
Maryland fired Randy Edsall in 2015 because he is not a particularly good football coach. However, the Terrapins paid him $100,000 in 2014 because he presided over a 25 percent increase in attendance.
This is a ridiculous metric on a number of levels, first and foremost that the head football coach has less to do with attendance than the players or outside factors. It was Maryland's first year in the Big Ten in 2014, with home games against the large fan bases of Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, and West Virginia. It's far more likely that home slate affected Maryland's attendance than anything Edsall did.
However, Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said athletes don't deserve to be paid like Edsall was.
"Some people say it's opportunity and some say that we're exploiting young people,"Anderson said. "Well, if we give them every opportunity ... and if they do what we require them to do, they're going to leave here with a degree.... Tell me that there's not value in that."
That's an interesting thought, because there was already value in Edsall's contract before the bonuses. Why did he deserve to get more, especially for something he didn't do?
Coaches have long used private airplanes for recruiting. A new phenomenon is coaches getting to use university planes for personal use.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz gets to use the University of Iowa's leased planes for 35 hours per year, just for fun. That's roughly two round-trips to Europe, on the house.
However, it is far too complicated for Iowa athletic director Gary Barta to figure out how to pay players.
"And I'll probably choose to do something else for a living if we ever had to go that route because it's so complex," he said. "Do you pay the Division III football player as an employee? Do you pay the tennis student-athlete as an employee?"
For the record, Barta would not choose to do something else for a living, since he makes over $450,000 per year. And it's really not that complex—simply spend the money you're spending on Ferentz's vacations on the players instead.
An AD Bonus for a Player's National Championship
When Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber won his third national championship in 2014, he wasn't allowed to receive any payment or endorsements. However, Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith made $18,000 off Stieber's accomplishment.
It's hard to even comprehend this level of insane. Not only does an athletic director have nothing to do with a team's success, this wasn't even a team championship. Smith made $18,000 off of one athlete. There's not even any abstract gray area where you can say, "Well, some people on the team are worth more than others, so we don't know their worth." One athlete's championship was worth $18,000 to Gene Smith.
Predictably, Smith isn't about to give up that not-at-all-earned money.
"I am not a proponent of creating an employer-employee relationship, which changes the whole dynamic," he said, adding, "I hope that we don't get to that point (where athletes are paid)."
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre received $292,000 in bonuses two years ago for meeting the following three objectives:
● Program outreach, including activity in the community
● Academic progress
● Player welfare and development, including citizenship
What the hell do all of those buzzwords mean? No clue! But it doesn't matter, because they were handed out at the "athletic director's discretion." We have no idea what things MacIntyre, a coach at a public university, did to earn an extra $292,000, but we do know that athletic director Rick George is OK with them.
George has supported paying athletes before, as in he actually did it. He once paid a recruit $100 for a hotel room. He has since called that a "dumb mistake" and has been non-committal on the idea of college athlete unionization. If he ever wants to pay recruits again, though, he would have plenty of room to do so with his football coach's bonuses.
College football bonuses are the clearest sign of an inefficient market. Universities want to attract the best athletes, but since they can't pay those athletes, they pay the coaches when the athletes do something right.
So before claiming that there's no money left in college sports, perhaps athletic directors and coaches should look at some of the contracts they already give out. There's plenty of waste to be cut.
Remaking Mike Zunino: How the Mariners catcher relaxed and started having a blast in Tacoma
April 26, 2016
It’s still a work in progress, but catcher Mike Zunino has stopped chasing hits and started enjoying himself — and hitting with authority. Here’s how he and the Mariners organization did it.
TACOMA — Mike Zunino is hitting, and he’s happy, and if you want to figure out the chicken-and-egg of that equation, it might be more complicated than you think.
Zunino had so much to remake, to undo, to get past, to get him to the point he is now: raking with authority and confidence in Class AAA. And he’s having a blast doing it, as has been readily apparent to those with him on the Tacoma Rainiers.
“I see him relaxed. I see him smiling. I see him having fun playing the game, said Scott Brosius, the former Yankee now serving as Tacoma’s hitting coach. “That’s been important. He’s been in one heck of a grind the last couple of years.”
Such a grind that a new Mariners’ regime wisely decided that Zunino, undeniably (and damagingly) rushed to the big leagues in 2013, needed the relative pressure-free environment of the minor leagues to start the recuperative process.
So here’s another chicken-and-egg scenario to ponder: to put Zunino back together at age 25 after the demoralization of his major-league career (a .193 average in three steadily declining seasons, with a strikeout every 2.83 at-bats), the Mariners knew they had to clean up his mechanics. But more important, they had to clean up his mind.
It all remains a work in progress, as even Zunino stresses. It’s dangerous to get too giddy about a hot month, even one as torrid as Zunino’s. His pinch-hit single on Tuesday at Cheney Stadium raised Zunino’s average to .413 (26 for 63). He has hit seven homers, driven in 22 runs, and struck out just 10 times, with five walks.
Yeah, it’s early. Yeah, it’s the Pacific Coast League, and a couple of those homers were admittedly aided by the light air of Albuquerque (a couple others would have been out of any ballpark in the world, manager Pat Listach said). And yeah, teams have yet to hone in on the areas of vulnerability that every major-league team exploited to annihilate Zunino.
But “it’s trending upwards,” a smiling Zunino said in the Rainiers’ dugout Monday.
Zunino mentioned a few tweaks he’s made to his batting approach. He affirmed what I noticed, that his stance is wider and slightly more open. More esoterically, he spoke of cleaning up his upper body load, keeping his front shoulder square to avoid flying off the ball.
But he also spoke, even more enthusiastically, of a revamped mindset.
“It’s more a sense of calm playing,’’ he said. “It’s very relaxed. I can have fun and joke around. It doesn’t seem like I’m on edge all the time.”
The phrase Zunino used, over and over, is that he’s “not chasing base hits.” It’s about the process, not the results. If he lines out, that’s a victory, not a defeat.
“I’m trying to twist the viewpoint of it,’’ he said, “and not trying to chase a batting average or chase home runs or chase all these results I can’t control. It’s really helped the results sort of come to me.”
And if he singles to right field, as Zunino did recently in a game against El Paso, well, that’s something to be celebrated just as much as the tape-measure homers he hit.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve done that?’’ an enthused Zunino told Brosius when he came back to the dugout.
Andy McKay, the Mariners’ new director of player development and a specialist in mental training, told Zunino that the average player sees 16 pitches in a typical four at-bat game. He challenged Zunino to see how many of those 16, he could stick to his desired mental approach.
Meanwhile, the Mariners have made a concerted effort to make sure Zunino is not bombarded with a million suggestions from well-meaning people.
“Every single guy as a hitter has to find themselves and find something they believe in, and not have something pushed on him,’’ Brosius said. “He’s had a lot of voices in his head the last couple of years. That’s what we talked about. I wanted him to be in charge of his surge.’’
Brosius has tried to use the same lingo as Mariners’ hitting coach Edgar Martinez. More important, he has tried to let Zunino come to his own epiphanies about cause and effect.
“Scott’s awesome,’’ Zunino said. “He’ll let you go three, four games. By the time he sees something, you mention it to him, and he goes, ‘perfect.’ He wants to let you feel it, instead of overwhelming you with stuff.”
Zunino believes he’s recognizing pitches better, laying off the bad ones or the ones he can’t drive. He’s starting to work on beating the infield shifts by going the other way.
“I don’t want to take the power away,’’ Listach said. But if they’re going to pound him away all day, he’s got to be able to hit the ball the other way and not try to pull it.”
Now comes part two of the Zunino remake, the harder part. Working deeper into counts. When a pitcher is attacking him particularly tough, leaving the marginal pitches alone and trusting himself with two strikes. Listach has been impressed with his growing command of his strike zone, noting that Zunino is not waving at nasty sliders, or at balls in the dirt or over his head.
“A couple years ago, when I was with Houston and he was here, we would just throw it anywhere and he’d swing,’’ Listach said. “We tried not to throw it in his sweet spot, and we had success against him. The mistakes we did make against him, he’d make us pay. He’s laying off those pitches now and having good at-bats.’’
And the hits are dropping, just in the nick of time. Because even if Zunino is no longer chasing base hits, they’re sure nice to have.
“He needs to see those numbers on the board, those .300s and .400s,’’ Listach said.
Zunino, meanwhile, is taking the long view and not fretting about when he’s going to get called up. Both Listach and Brosius rave about his defensive work and his positive attitude. The idea is for Zunino to have sustained success and get him to the point where, as Brosius puts it, “the next time he goes up, we don’t want to see him again. He’s up there to stay.”
Says Zunino, “I’m trying to take this time to become a better ballplayer, and not dwell on what happened before … Come out, enjoy playing baseball. Enjoy competing, having at-bats, winning. Everything else, I can’t control. “
So, to answer the question, which came first, the hitting or the happiness?
The answer is yes.